As an extra, easter egg or background element, fishing seems to pop up everywhere in video games; from side-angle angling in Link’s Awakening and Rumble Pak-reeling in Ocarina of Time to museum-filling in Animal Crossing and fly-rod flinging in Yumi’s Odd Odyssey, it’s served as a popular pastime for in-game characters across both generations and genres. In Natsume’s Legend of the River King series, however, it’s more than a pastime — it’s a way of life. Like its excellent predecessor, Legend of the River King 2 celebrates the sport by putting fishing up front and centre in an RPG world; the result is a charming, relaxed and wonderfully different handheld adventure.

When our story begins, the world’s in trouble — the Mountain God and Sea God have each stolen one of the two pieces of the fabled Heaven Jewel, causing a whole host of natural disasters and unusual events to befall your small seaside village. Legend has it that these mischievous celestial beings like to moonlight in fish form, so it falls to you and your brother — both plucky, pint-sized future fishers — to reel in the delinquent deities and bring balance back to the natural world.

Before you begin, you can choose to play as either the Kid or the Teen, two characters with slightly different stats and considerably different paths to follow through the game. The adventure and areas are the same no matter which route you choose, so it’s not quite two games in one, but the ordering of events in each path is different enough to add some real replay potential to the adventure.

Like the first Legend of the River King, this adventure plays out within a unique fishing-RPG mold. Players walk around an integrated overworld with several areas, exploring each in turn and fishing, foraging, and helping townsfolk to open up new paths. In look and feel, it brings to mind early Pokémon, while the emphasis on progressing via simple trade sequences evokes classic portable Zelda: grab an oyster for your dad so he can make up with your mom, and he’ll lend you his boat; pick flowers for a fox family and they’ll give you some tofu, which you can then use to bribe an ogre into letting you pass — as one does.

Of course, if you want to make any headway in River King 2’s high-stakes, bartering-based world, you’ll need to cast your line and get fishing. The basic angling action here is simple to start with: just press ‘B’ to cast the line and, if you’re lucky, one of the fish visible from the surface will start to circle your line. An assortment of tackle options adds lots of strategy and some welcome variety; you can change your rod, hook, and bait or lure, and each type will attract different fish and even control differently. In fly fishing, for instance, you’ll need to move the bait across the water by hand, while fishing with lures lets you jiggle the line to try and tempt a bite.

No matter which setup you’re using, once you hook a fish you’ll switch to a side-on underwater view and reel it in with some button-pressing finesse. It’s a bit tricky at first, as just holding down the reel button will result in a pile of snapped lines and lost lures — the trick is to let the fish swim as far as it wants to to the left before holding ‘A’ or ‘B’ to reel it in, and then releasing the button as soon as it shows signs of starting up again. Repeat this process a few times — the difficulty scales with the size of the fish — and eventually you’ll land your lunker. Once you get used to the timing, fishing feels great — it’s satisfying and surprisingly engaging, and provides a splash of action in an otherwise gloriously tranquil game.

Along with all the angling, your journey to capture the Kings will see you diving for shellfish, catching bugs and picking lots of flowers. Diving takes the form of a real-time race to the seafloor, as you mash the ‘B’ button and try to reach your quarry before running out of air, while bug catching and flower picking are both performed through charming, menu-based ‘battle’ screens accessed from the overworld. It’s nothing too involved, but it does a good job of providing a genuine sense of discovery — zooming in on individual points to look for bugs and flowers feels like a digital analogue to childhood backyard exploration.

Not everything’s serene in these seaside scenes, however; while walking around town, you’ll sometimes stumble into random encounters with fearsome feathered foes, like crows, kites, and the ever-imposing albatross. These RPG-style battles use a unique timing-based attack system: a hand bounces around the screen as soon as the fight begins, and hitting ‘A’ when it’s directly on top of your enemy will land a smash hit, while pressing the button when it’s over the background will result in a whiff. It’s a neat little system that keeps battles fast and fun, letting you level up quickly and get back to casting your line without much fuss.

The fishing, diving, bug catching, flower picking, and bird battling are all fun, but what really makes River King 2 special is the atmosphere. It’s wonderfully relaxing wandering through the overworld, with its perfectly kid-sized scale — big enough to feel like you’re exploring, but small enough that you won’t get lost — and with frequent weather changes and a day-night cycle, it feels a bit like an eight-bit snow-globe of rural seaside Japan. The soundtrack adds considerably to the ambience as well, with powerful, pensive pentatonic melodies played on chiptune kotos as you walk through town, and calming noise-channel cicadas and soothing environmental sounds setting the scene as you wait for a bite.

River King 2’s held up rather well visually too, with cute sprites and colourful backgrounds that hold plenty of retro charm. That said, there’s a bit of control clunkiness that comes with age and trying to fit a rather full-featured RPG onto the Game Boy Color. The biggest issue for modern gamers will be the lack of contextual button presses. Pressing the ‘B’ button casts your line, no matter where you are or what’s in front of you, but for everything else — including putting away your fishing rod once you’ve cast — you’ll have to go rooting through a multi-screen, text-based menu. Awkward abbreviations make this tougher than you’d think at first — ‘basket’ might not be immediately obvious from BAKT — and any way you slice it, it feels a bit silly to have to dive into a long list of commands to pick a flower instead of simply being able to press a button when you’re standing in front of it. And while the grid-based movement is perfectly responsive, it does feel a bit slow nowadays; we suspect plenty of players will be pining for Running Shoes before long.

Another cue to the game’s old-school origin is the fact that there’s very little in the way of handholding, and no tutorials to speak of; it’s easy to click through the opening dialogue and then have no idea what to do, where to go, or even how to fish. Talking to NPCs is the order of the day, though a few typos make that harder than it needs to be on occasion — a spoonerism-prone villager will ask you for an ’S. Reabrm’ but really need an ‘R. Seabrm’, for instance. That said, the world is focused enough that trying to tease out your next step is never too daunting, and the digital manual does a good job getting you up to speed on the underlying (and often unspoken) mechanics.

Conclusion

A fantastic fishing-focused adventure with lots of heart, Legend of the River King 2 is a portable delight. There’s plenty to see and do, with bug catching, flower picking, and diving joining the line-casting central hook, and two different routes through the story add significant replay value for avid anglers. Fishing fans and RPG fans will both have a blast, though those who come for the atmosphere will get the most out of the experience; the soundtrack, setting, and sense of scale all work in concert to deliver one of the most charming depictions of seaside summer ever put to eight-bit cartridge. A real catch.